So you want to be a Ham?

The License

You MUST have a license to operate amateur radio.  Most of my comments here will be addressed to United States rules under the FCC, but the software could easily be adapted for other countries.  The license requires you to do two things.  First, you must take a multiple choice test to make sure that you are not a hazard to yourself or others, and understand basic electronics theory.  Simply, the test wants to know if you are smart enough to know the difference between right and wrong.  The test gets more technical for the General and Extra classes, but, it is still based on the same context.  Second, (if you want to use the hf bands) you need to learn the Morse Code at five words a minute.  You can do this.  If they can teach Koko the gorilla how to speak sign language, you can learn the code.  If they let an idiot like me get a license, anyone can.

I may have SLIGHTLY oversimplified the tests, but confidence is everything. Now, you may ask "How do I get ready for these tests?"

I am so glad you asked! This would have been a very short page indeed had the question not come up!

The Written Test.

You can take the test online at QRZ. You can also download a program for Linux/Unix called Hamtest, SHAMELESS PLUG - conveniently located on my linux software page).  Follow the instructions which include downloading the question pool from the ARRL.  Once you have the program installed, you can give yourself practice tests using the EXACT questions that will be on the exam.  Learn the material, don't memorize the questions.  KNOW YOUR STUFF!  Try to take at least one test daily, until you can pass the tests over and over.  Repetition is the key.  If you can take the tests at home and pass them, you can pass them on the exam day.  It really is that simple.  No need to worry, no need to panic.

If you are taking the Technician class license test, get a copy of "Now You're Talking", this is the training manual that the ARRL developed for their Club trained classes, and is a very complete and thorough entry level training manual and confidence builder.

The Code Test (you don't need the code to be a Tech)

First, know this. You did not learn how to speak in one day, don't expect to learn the code in one day. There will always be an idiot who says he learned the code at 20 wpm in three days. Ignore him, he's a liar. Learn the code by groups that sound similar, such as letters that are all dots, the letters that are all dashes. If you have to, add one letter at a time, then a number, then a punctuation mark, until you know them all.

Practice every day. That is the key (no pun intended). You will need time to find the rhythm, and a little practice every day is better than a lot of practice once a month.

Where do you get this practice?

Download the Linux Program UnixCW, SHAMELSS PLUG - available on my Linux software page) and install it. You can run it in console mode or in a shell under X. Pick the group of letters you want to learn, and go to work.

If you get frustrated, walk away until you calm down. If you try to force yourself, you won't gain anything, and you may get mad enough to quit. Don't do it. It will happen, and at the strangest time. I started learning with a tape that gave the letters in Morse Code, then in English. At the end, it would send groups of letters that I had learned up to that point. Rewind try again. I played this tape twenty to thirty times a day and I wasn't getting it. But my wife was, and she didn't want to learn the code. Made me mad as hell, and I quit listening to the tape.

A week or so went by, and my anger subsided, my wife opened a kitchen cupboard door, which made a squeak, and I thought "T". All of a sudden, I could remember about half the alphabet in Morse code. All because of a squeaky door! Some people get it one letter at a time, some get it all at once. Just remember, you're smarter than Koko, and look what the gorilla learned to do.

Once you can remember the letters, get a code key and a code practice oscillator, and start sending letters. If you can, record what you send and listen to your timing. Work at it for a short time every day after you have used your hamtest and unixcw programs.

Another good way to practice if you have a ham transceiver or short-wave radio is to dial up W1AW and practice copying code from the timetable. The ARRL offers qualification runs, which will allow you to put a piece of paper on your wall verifying that you copied the code at X wpm, and you can add extra endorsements. If I were you, I would work at getting one for the fastest speed I could copy, that certificate will be a visual reminder to you that you can already pass a "code test" before you ever set foot in the VEC testing room.

If you can send and receive at 10 wpm or even 7 wpm, 5 wpm will be easy come test day.
The code test will be like an on air qso, so if you have a radio, copy the qso's you hear on the radio, so you know how they talk, and it is good practice to listen to code that you don't know how fast it is.  You will be more comfortable trying to copy it if you think it is slower than it really is.


In the United States, the exam will probably be given in or near your hometown. No more driving 500 miles before dawn to take the test at the FCC. The test will be given by local hams, so relax. Even if you fail, you can take it next time, without driving a thousand miles round trip. If it seems like I am downplaying the importance of all this, I am. No one has ever died from failing the exams. No one has ever been thrown into a den of lions, heck they don't even snicker at you. Don't worry about it. Just do it.

I passed the test now what?

Good for you. Now you wait for your license to come in the mail. The FCC will wait until you are ready to explode, and then they will send it. You can keep checking the FCC page to see if it has been issued, and what your callsign is, but I would wait until you have the license in hand before you get on the radio.

Now, get on the radio. Listen around, if you hear a CQ at a comfortable speed, answer. Let them know right away this is your first contact, and they will be glad to help you out. You are likely to be so excited you forget the code, or even your name. They will understand, one thing all hams can tell you about is their first qso. ENJOY! This is what it's all about my good friend.

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This page last updated by KF8GR on Aug 9, 2004